A Gathering of Eagles
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 15, 2008
I assume that Charles Garo's play, A Gathering of Eagles, is of recent vintage, but it feels like it could have been written during the time period in which it is set (the 1980s, I think), or even 20 years before that. Its premise is intriguing: a group of American veterans—ace fighter pilots who served in World War II—gather for the dedication of a monument to fallen heroes. Because this memorial recognizes not only American soldiers but those of all nations, two of their German counterparts are at the ceremony as well. Thus we have an occasion for one-time enemies to come together and recognize their shared histories and humanity.
Alas, that's not what happens. One of the Americans is of Polish descent and has never forgiven the Germans for attacking his homeland (where relatives perished during the war). Another is Jewish and has become virulently anti-German now that he understands the facts of the Holocaust. And one of the Germans is unapologetically clear-eyed about why Hitler came to power and why six million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
I was disappointed that Garo chose to push his story along these lines, reinforcing popular (and very dated) assumptions about World War II rather than challenging them. I was most disturbed by the choice to make General Hager of the Luftwaffe such an archetypal Nazi figure, a man who seems to relish baiting his American hosts even as he claims no responsibility for the acts perpetrated by the regime he defended/defends. Director Dan Drew ameliorates the problem with the casting of Philip Filiato in the role—he is undoubtedly the most commanding performer on stage, but he looks and behaves way too much like Erich von Stroheim to ward off caricature in his portrayal.
Garo also provides an awkward and unconvincing framing device for the story—various protest groups have obtained an injunction against the unveiling of the monument, just hours before the ceremony is to take place. This further serves to muddy the ideas being presented here. Is the play about the banal horrors of war? Is it a reminder that, in spite of those horrors, the brave young men (and women) fighting them are worthy of respect and honor?
The play's second act is mostly a succession of debates and monologues, covering very specific topics (the appeasement of the Nazis by the Allies, the reasons why Hitler became popular and why he targeted the Jews, the importance of remembering the Holocaust, the nature of forgiveness in Christian and Jewish theology). Are these the main ideas of the play? If so, little that hasn't already been covered in countless plays, movies, and books of the past 40 years is brought up here. Are we supposed to see resonance in some of this discussion? The talk of appeasement sometimes rang true, but the repeated assertions that the Russians were America's great enemy made this feel like a relic of the Cold War rather than something pertinent for today's world situation.
In the end, A Gathering of Eagles felt to me like a squandered opportunity. We can never learn enough about the ways people and nations are different and the ways they are the same. But this play spends too much of its time merely repeating the same old prejudices and assumptions that have made true understanding impossible for generations.